maiko kyoto japan geisha beauty makeup garance dore photos

Beauty with a Maiko, Mamefuji

7 years ago by

While I was in Kyoto, I had the privilege (as I learned it is very rare to get an interview with one) with a real Maiko. You might be confused – don’t you mean a Geisha? So to clear it up, it’s important to note that there are no Geisha in Kyoto, there are Maiko and Geiko. End of story.

Once you become a Geiko, you will work with the house until you decide to leave;  A: because you marry, or B: you wish to retire. Their jobs entail performing songs, dances, and playing the shamisen for visitors during dinner events. It’s an exhaustive schedule, sometimes with no days off for months, so, for some, an end point is imminent… And, as I don’t speak Japanese, we were lucky enough to have a translator help out so I could share all the wonderful history behind this art form AND a few beauty secrets too.

When we met Mamefuji who is 18 and grew up many hours away, she was dressed traditionally in a vibrant red kimono, hair impeccably done with all sorts of adornments, and makeup like Pat McGrath herself had done it. Although not knowing much about the history of a Geiko, she was always interested in the culture of Kyoto and, through word of mouth, was connected to the house she works for, or okyia. It’s an isolated community for people who understand the rules and traditions, so to be accepted into a house is no easy task.

A Maiko is an apprentice for a five-year period on their way to becoming a Geiko. They stay in one house with the mother, are fed with room and board, receive daily lessons in art, dance, music and calligraphy, and don’t actually own anything. Around the age of 20 or 21, she will become a Geiko, at which point she begins to work, make her own money and can buy her own garments. (Yay!) There’s also this nice saying she told us, ‘The turning of the collar’ – or, when you become of age.

In this period between Maiko and Geiko, she will have to go into town and let everyone know her intention for two weeks. She writes letters, shows up with sweets, all while donning a black kimono, with her family or houses crest on it. She also paints her teeth black… (I didn’t quite understand this, but with a quick search on the internet found that by painting teeth black, they seem to “disappear” into the darkness of the open mouth. Sayonara, Crest whitening strips!)

It was also interesting to find out that, if you look older, you may not even work as a Maiko as age in Japan is such a big deal, and, in the Maiko culture, it isn’t based on your actual age, but what level you are at in training, this is the age you present yourself. Kind of like an actor… ;)


As a Maiko, you wear your own hair and sleep with it perfectly done for a week, they even have special tall holed-pillows to sleep on in order help keep in place and hair off the ground (the older Geikos all wear wigs!) The bottom lip gets painted for one year and both for two years of learning during work sessions. Same for eye makeup: they want you to retain the look of adolescence so no mascara or eye makeup for first year.

After being shown by her onee-san (older sister in the house, or mentor), each Maiko does all of her own makeup, even the delicate W angles at the back of the neck. She uses a thick oil to apply makeup with her hands then, with a special bamboo brush, she applies the white – a powder she mixes with water. Every Geiko has a sightly different color of white face makeup, some more red or pink. Her lip color is a mixture of Shiseido lipstick mixed with water and a red candy. Yes, candy! Hers is called iced candy, which is literally a brick of sugar. And why the candy, right? Simply put, the candy is sweet and tastes good, and it also makes for more beautiful color. She uses this same mixture around her eyes and eyebrows too.

It must take hours to do all this – the hair, the pins, the layers of makeup? But repetition makes for quick hands and Mamefuji said, “Oh, about 30 minutes!” I thought my routine was quick. Maybe most surprising is how she takes off the mask of makeup… baby oil! And she cites Nivea lotion as her evening go-to for moisturizer.

Of course, this is but a brief foray into the life and times of a Maiko. It was so fascinating, I could have spent hours with her! Mostly obsessing over the belted kimono situation and her perfectly drawn eyebrows but, like all good things, our time was limited and she had other obligations that day….

Shop the story


Add yours
  • What an insightful article, thank you for sharing.

  • this was so good: thank you! :)

  • Wowww! Quelle rencontre passionnante!
    Ton article est super intéressant!
    J’aime beaucoup comment sont maquillés ses yeux, c’est hallucinant que ça ne lui prenne pas plus d’une demie heure!!
    Belle journée

    Petite and so What?

  • It’s so amazing different culture different tradition…it’s getting more and more rare and we have to protect’s very special to Japan ..but in different places of the world we still have traditions that are really local…but basic beauty is universal…
    From The World With Love
    Yael Guetta

  • Thank you for such a gentle rendering. It would be easy to point out all the problems with this sort of gendered work, but I appreciated your kind, slightly removed, attitude. I think in many ways, the way a culture defines its ultimate form of femininity says a lot about what it collectively desires and aspires to – taller, smaller, soft voice, wide smile – there is a way that the women of a society mirror what is valued. Clearly one of the values about this kind of beauty is about training and maintaining a standard, which is not particularly emphasized in the spheres of NYC fashion right now – I kind of like how oppositional this is to the aspiration of “effortlessness” that is so prevalent in my world.

    It’s not a competition or anything, I just find it refreshing to have a different view, so thanks for this.

  • Wonderful article and amazing photo! I have been in love with Japan and fascinated with Geisha ever since I went to Japan to work as a model.You are very lucky to have had an interview with one. It was exciting just to catch a glimpse of one in Kyoto! ( obsessed with her eyebrows too-and the little peek of red on the top!)

  • Wow, how fascinating, Brie! Thank you for this look into her life. I am also left wanting more info :)

  • Lovely photo and glimpse into Gion life! By the way, teeth blackening was en vogue for centuries among Japanese women. It’s a bit like how we use nail polish today.

  • If you’re interested in learning more about geiko, the book/movie, Memoirs of a Geisha is quite true to life.

    Liza Dalby was the first american geisha and wrote a fascinating, in-depth book about it. (She was the authenticity consultant for the Memoirs of a Geisha movie.)

  • Claudia Bustamante December, 3 2015, 1:49 / Reply

    Quel coincidence ! Cette semaine même je parlais à mon amie qui vit au Japon,
    d’aller à Kyoto ensemble pour se promener dans les rues en quimono loués et photographier
    les maykos. Elle sait que j’adore la photo. Et maintenant j’ai toutes ces informations pour
    partager avec elle, merci beaucoup ! Je ne connais pas le Japon mais j’ai très envie d’y aller.
    Superbe post!

  • Mélanie December, 3 2015, 5:24 / Reply

    Passionnant !

  • Hi, this was a really interesting article. How nice to get behind the mask!
    Nothing to do directly with the post but I’m travelling in South America at the moment and wanting to get behind the tourist scenes in a similar way. Any readers out there with suggestions of places not to miss, exhibitions, bars, restaurants, shops, shows etc. in the city of Santiago de Chile? I’ll be there as from 20th December until 4th jan, so looking forward to Christmas & New Years chilean style.
    Thanks for any suggestions!!

  • This was very interesting article. Mamefuji’s make up and style is very beautiful.

  • it’s a picture there is no photo of the back of her neck, so beautiful the way the white makeup tapers down on the back of the neck on maiko.
    Turning the collar is not just a phrase, it’s literally true – geiko wear a plain white collar.

  • it’s a PITY, sorry!

  • Charikleia December, 4 2015, 6:53 / Reply

    This piece is very fascinating and your writing is impeccable. I am ashamed to say though, that all sorts of politically incorrect questions would pop up in my mind were I to interview this gorgeous yound lady.

  • wow, amazing pic!
    Passa a trovarmi VeryFP

  • Superbe post. Très intéressant.
    Merci Brie! ;-)

  • J’aime ce blog pour la diversite des sujets et celui d’aujourd’hui est tres interessant.

  • Une écriture aussi délicate sur un sujet souvent si mal traité, bravo Brie :-)

  • That has to be my favourite beauty story so far! I’ve always felt attracted for Japanese culture, I even studied Japanese for five years at University! I really hope you start featuring different ideas of beauty in this space I think it’s a great way to learn a little bit more about other cultures.

  • Wow. Mixing candy with lipstick… so fascinating!

  • Amy Bielawski December, 6 2015, 3:18 / Reply

    Well the idea of being an actress in a role and doing it justice is appealing, but this is very different and certainly is not a feminist kind of life. I feel sad that this is a poor option for women in Japan. References to age and remaining looking adolescent don’t help much.

  • bavarian_blue December, 7 2015, 2:31 / Reply

    Super interesting. Love your story!

  • mademoiselle mauve December, 7 2015, 7:33 / Reply

    rencontre incroyable ! merci pour l’article

  • I find the “negative” comments disappointing. Every time period, every (sub-)culture, every person has ideas of what an aspirational look and lifestyle are. Some choose to look more sexy while others choose to look more adolescent. Injections are popular, as is hair dye, makeup and perfume.

    Hers may not be a life you choose, but we should applaud and support Mamefuji for going for what she wants in life. She freely chose her path with no pressure. She sounds truly liberated.

  • J’ai adorée lire cet article. Très passionnant.

  • perfect article, thanks for sharing

From the Archives

This or That
  • This or That
  • Holiday Gifting
  • Happy Holidays!
  • #AtelierDoreDoes
  • How To...
atelier dore this or that summer sandals chunky sandals vs. delicate sandals

This or That / Sandal Edition

This or That: American or Française?

This or That: American or Française?

atelier dore this or that lingerie lace or cotton sex month

This or That / Lingerie Edition

This or That / Blush vs. Bronzer

This or That / Blush vs. Bronzer

This or That: The Beanie

This or That: The Beanie

This or That: Nails

This or That: Nails

This or That

This or That

This Or That

This Or That

Silja Danielsen Photo

This Or That: Low Knot or Top Knot